Science at Thacher: Recollections by Tom May CdeP 1952

Tom May CdeP 1952
In the period between 1948 and 1961 chemistry, physics, and biology were each taught by a separate teacher...
In the period between 1948 and 1961 chemistry, physics, and biology were each taught by a separate teacher. Two out of the three courses were required for graduation. At the Lower School (9th grade) level there was a physiography course which provided science steering away from the other three courses. It was a deliberate effort to avoid the possibility that some of the boys may be entering with prior course work duplication.

I happened to be on campus in late September 1956, just out of college with a summer month in the USSR. After several days, the librarian, Mrs. Lavender, told me I had better earn my keep and work for her, which I gladly did. Shortly, Headmaster Newton Chase, asked if I would take out an Upper School camping group, which I did. That let to consecutive weekends as a “teacher” on camping trips. In late October, because of a serious illness of one of the faculty, I was asked if I would mind teaching the physiography class, known as Lower School Science. As a geology major I was delighted to step in. Because of another faculty illness, I was asked to take on the biology course, which I did, but not feeling as well qualified. Fortunately, my instructor of five years before, Al Reiff, was teaching chemistry and became my instant mentor. Likewise, his predecessor biology teacher, Donald McDougall, became another mentor. By Christmas I was the Natural Sciences Department.

It was a great pleasure to move into the new “bug lab” just north of the Study Hall. The room had long benches instead of chairs, a large storage closet containing supplies and an assortment of stuffed animals and archeological items removed from exhibits of the old “bug lab,” which was a redwood-sided building just north of the new building. The old building also housed the gun club lockers and tables which were used for mechanical drawing classes.

The five years that I taught the physiography course I emphasized the local geology which the boys saw on the riding trails and camping trips. On occasion, I took truck trips to the desert or Cuyama to dig and note interesting fossils and minerals. At that time the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics were not officially accepted though I had been introduced to the ideas in my major, so passed on what I knew. Other studies which are now commonly accepted beyond geologic circles were also introduced. I took summer courses to improve my biology knowledge at Columbia and U.C. Santa Barbara. Again thanks to Al Reiff I introduced the word “ecology” and its concept. DNA and advances in pharmacology (polio vaccine and genetics, chromosomes being tagged for disease) were tossed in as current news. My interest in local flora and its relationship to botanical families hopefully introduced the ideas of interlocking relationship with terrain, insects, and animals.

Over the years of visits to the campus I have become aware that so much has been discovered in all of the sciences in the last 50 years that I perceive I was teaching dark ages material.

Two very distinguished medicos come to mind who passed through my classroom. I am sure both already were headed where they went, but my class was a stepping stone. Their names are Thomas Russell, MD CdeP 1958 and Thomas Bell, DVM CdeP 1959. A teacher always likes to think that he helped the young on the way. Perhaps these two men come to mind because of their first name.


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